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Commander in Chief
braham Lincoln was an extremely able
commander in chief, but few Americans
in 1861, or even in 1863, recognized
Lincoln's genius for military strategy.
Whereas Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy,
was a West Point graduate and Mexican War hero, Lincoln
had virtually no previous military experience. Indeed, he
often joked about his brief army career: four months'
service (April- July, 1832) with several rag-tag militia com-
panies in the Black Hawk War. Elected captain by his New
Salem friends, Lincoln inspired more humor than gallantry
as a leader of men. Once, when marching his company
toward a narrow gate, he forgot the correct command to
form his troops in a single column so they could advance.
"Halt!" Lincoln finally shouted. "This company will break
ranks for two minutes and form again on the other side of
the gate." In contrast to Davis, Lincoln was a civilian by
habit, experience, and vision. Yet this background served
the Railsplitter well later when he led the citizen soldiers
who fought in the Civil War.
Lincoln succeeded as a military leader because he grasped
the fundamentals of modern war. Unlike many journalists
and politicians, Lincoln recognized that the Civil War
would be a long, bloody struggle. He understood that the
North could win the war only if it used effectively its vast
superiority in manpower, transportation, and supply. In
the first three years of the war, however, Lincoln failed to
find a field commander who would exploit these advan-
tages. Instead, the President entrusted the Union military
fortunes to a string of ineffectual Generals— Irvin Mc-
Dowell, George B. McClellan, Ambrose E. Burnside, John
Pope and others. Time and time again in 1862 Lincoln
urged McClellan to attack the Confederates. Rebuking
the General for his continual delays, Lincoln finally wrote:
"I have just read your despatch about sore-tongued and
fatigued horses. Will you pardon me for asking what the
horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam
that fatigues anything?" The road to Union victory was
cleared when Lincoln finally placed military command in
the hands of Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman.
Like Lincoln, these generals realized that the Union
could be preserved only if it fought a total war. Anything
less would result in Confederate independence.
Compared with the battle plans proposed by his early
advisors, Lincoln's strategy was bold, imaginative, and
aggressive. He ordered several simultaneous offensives—
in different theatres— designed to crush the South. In-
sisting that civilian authorities have a voice in the direction
of the Northern war effort, Lincoln hounded his generals
to maintain constant pressure on the entire periphery of
the Confederacy until a weak spot emerged. Lincoln urged
upon his commanders the importance of defeating the
enemy's armies, crushing its industrial base, and destroy-
ing its will to fight. The President was less concerned with
occupying Southern territory than with winning the war.
Expediency shaped Lincoln's military thought. He recog-
nized that he had to break with the old tenets of war.
Among the President's more radical moves was his deci-
sion to free and arm the slaves. With this bold strike at the
South 's "peculiar institution" Lincoln accomplished three
goals: he provided needed manpower (178,895 black sol-
diers) for the Union armies; he weakened the South 's labor
force; and he inspired Afro- Americans, North and South,
to suppress the rebellion. Other innovations reveal Lin-
coln's understanding of the concept of total war. He au-
thorized the devastating marches led by Sherman in
Georgia and North Carolina, and by Philip H. Sheridan in
Virginia. Late in the war he refused to exchange prisoners
with the Confederacy. Each rebel soldier returned to his
unit, reasoned Lincoln, would help prolong the war. Lin-
coln also was the first commander in chief to declare
medicines contraband of war. But Lincoln's most impor-
tant legacy as a strategist was his establishment of the
modern command system: a commander in chief (Lin-
coln) to establish overall strategy; a general in chief
(Grant) to implement plans; and a chief of staff (Henry W.
Halleck) to relay information. Thus Lincoln, without rec-
ognizing his long-range contribution to our modern com-
mand system, laid its foundation in 1864.
Although Lincoln made mistakes as a war leader, he
learned from them and never looked back. Lincoln grew
as a strategist; he asked questions; he read; he probed—
anything within his power to shorten the war. Ironically
it was Lincoln, a most unlikely military man, who became
America's apostle of modern war.
John David Smith, Ph.D.
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Commander in Chief